In spite of its name, How To with John Wilson is probably one of the worst how-to shows ever made. One of the jokes behind the HBO documentary series is that each episode, while ostensibly about how to do something, jettisons the topic as quickly as possible in order to explore something else entirely. In the third and final season (which premiered on July 28), the first episode, “How to Find a Public Restroom,” eventually pivots to a rumination on diminishing public space, and later “How to Watch Birds,” well — you probably won’t believe what that one ends up being about.
Tying it all together is John Wilson, the show’s mostly unseen host. Every episode of How To is a first-person odyssey into the weird, unexplored corners of New York and beyond as Wilson is heard both behind the camera and in a nasal, ever-present narration that ensures that, while you may not learn what you thought you would at the start of the episode, you will learn something about how to think of the world around you.
Recently, Wilson talked to Polygon about his personal connection to the show, how difficult it is to describe, and why he wants to change how you look at your city.
Polygon: How To has always come across as a very personal work, but this season feels even more so. Was that your intent?
John Wilson: Yeah, in making this the last season I was able to unlock a few things that I was worried about doing before or the show maybe hadn’t matured enough for. But I felt being able to throw everything at the wall, and just being as ambitious as I possibly could, in the third season would make me feel a lot better for ending it. It had to end at one point, and I wanted to make sure that it ended on a strong note, because the best thing you can possibly do is leave people wanting more. If people even want more.
Now that the show has been around for a couple years, do you think people have gotten better at describing it?
I don’t think so. And, I mean, I personally haven’t even gotten better at talking about it. I think the show is kind of just a calling card for itself. If you see it you’ve got to be interested or compelled immediately, or you’re turned off by my voice and point of view and you move on. I’m amazed that we were even able to get the show greenlit with how strange of a concept it is.
In this season more than others, you run into a lot of people telling you to fuck off and go away. You’re told “This is a private space.”
Especially in the public restroom episode. That was the theme.
I love that episode; it’s very Jane Jacobs-y, exploring vanishing public spaces and cities hostile to people. Do you feel from your perspective and what you do that New York as a city is getting more hostile?
I think it is moving in that direction. In a way it’s interesting because the sidewalk shack stuff in restaurants — that is a development I did not anticipate at all. I find it so amazing that people are fighting and getting approval to keep them in parking spots. It’s not public, because it’s a restaurant, but you’re extending collective street life and not giving priority to machines as much. And that I find so cool.
But then money just moves so fast in all these other ways. You have a development like Hudson Yards, which — I’m not the only person that has noticed how kind of hostile it can be. I really hope that that is not a model that people continue to look towards, because they try to eliminate food vendors, the campus around The Vessel, it just sanitizes everything in a way that I feel is antithetical to the way a healthy city should operate. Even places that I haven’t been to, like Little Island, I don’t know—
It kind of bums me out.
It feels like a really stuffy, surveilled version of what a public space should be. And sure, it might be a destination kind of spot for people that don’t know the city very well. But I don’t know anyone that hangs out there.
We’ve talked about New York City a lot and your show is kind of about NYC, but it frequently takes you far away — do you think that’s kind of the spirit of the show? That it’s a way to engage with any city?
I think you’re right and I hope people use this as a lens to look at their own cities and be critical, but also celebrate what their own cities are like. I saw on the [subreddit] for the show, someone posted a rant about traffic cones in Japan — like why there are so many traffic cones in this one part of Japan, and what their function is, it was really cool. I don’t know if the creator has seen the show, but that kind of stuff, it’s just like candy to me.
I love that people are potentially doing that more and more. Because that does change our collective consciousness, and maybe affects change in a way that you might not get with just normal politics. I’ve seen so much shit happen with like, scaffolding after that episode came out. I can’t take full credit for it, but it’s cool that a dialogue started, you know?